Superhero Grief: Talking to Your Kids About Death

When children grieve their heroes.

Posted Sep 11, 2020

fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

How does superhero celebrity grief affect children and what tips can we provide to parents and families? To help answer this question, I once again turned to Dr. Jill Harrington, Creator and Lead Editor of the upcoming book, published by Routledge, Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss — a creatively bold approach, using modern Marvel and DC superhero narratives to teach the theories, concepts, and practice applications of loss, grief, and bereavement.

I interviewed Dr. Harrington and two members of her league of grief specialists, Dr. Julie Kaplow and Dr. Donna Gaffney — both authors on child and adolescent grief and the use of superheroes in bereavement care. You can view my previous article on the general impact of celebrity grief here.

Dr. Marylin Mendoza: Is it important for us to talk to our children about death?

Dr. Jill Harrington: Absolutely, but easier said than done, right? In our Western society, it is never easy to deal with the topic of death. In modern times, with advances in medicine, science, and technology, we have become a death-denying society, and with it, a pain avoidant one. Death can be the ultimate, most distressing pain, to the body and the soul. After all, death bars us, physically, from those we love. It can unleash the most profound distress of separation from those who we hold affectional, loving bonds and a connection to our own existence. However, woven into our existence and our survival is our ability to adapt to loss, and possibly even make meaning and grow from the depths of our pain. Talking to children about death can be painful and uncomfortable, however, when T’Challa/Black Panther told his father, T’Chaka, on the Ancestral Plain in the afterlife, “I am not ready to be without you” (Feige & Cooglar, 2018, 00:32:06), his father’s response was, “A man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father” (Feige & Cooglar, 2018, 00:32:15). It is never easy, and as uncomfortable as it may be, one of the greatest tasks of parents is educating our children about death as a part of life. 

Dr. Marylin Mendoza: Why may it be difficult to tell your kids about the death of a superhero actor?

Dr. Julie Kaplow: Depending on a child’s age and developmental stage, the concept of death and its permanence can be difficult to comprehend. The death of a superhero actor can be particularly challenging to children for a number of reasons. First, children often have difficulty separating the superhero actor from the superhero character. Superheroes by nature are supposed to be invincible, and the death of a superhero actor can significantly impact a child’s worldview (e.g., “If the Black Panther can die, then no one is safe”). Second, children can develop strong attachments to superhero actors and who they represent. This “celebrity grief” is often minimized in our society, which can feel invalidating and can make the mourning process even more difficult. Finally, adults often hesitate to openly discuss the topic of death around children, particularly when the death involves a beloved superhero. This can inadvertently send the message that our children are unable to handle the news, and this avoidance can perpetuate feelings of isolation and insecurity.

Dr. Marylin Mendoza: How should you share the news of the unexpected death of a favorite superhero actor?

Dr. Julie Kaplow: Most children will hear about the death of a favorite superhero actor, either through the media, friends, etc., so it's helpful for caregivers to provide developmentally appropriate information before kids hear the news from others. Caregivers should approach the topic directly while allowing children to guide the conversation. For example, a caregiver might say, “We heard some sad news about Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Black Panther. We learned that he died today. You probably have lots of questions and feelings about that. What questions do you have for me?” As adults, we tend to err on the side of either providing too much detailed information, which can feel overwhelming to children, or providing too little information by not talking about it at all. Giving children the opportunity to ask questions and keeping an “open door” policy by letting them revisit the topic at any time will allow them to express their emotions surrounding the death and fully process their grief.

Dr. Marylin Mendoza: What may be some of your child's grief reactions to their loss?

Dr. Donna Gaffney: The death of an actor who portrays a fictional character can be confusing, especially for children under the age of 4. Very young children may not be able to separate the person who portrayed their favorite superhero from the superhero character. Older children and teens will be able to acknowledge that T’Challa/Black Panther will not continue on screen, but their worries may focus on the future of the Black Panther franchise. Children will have a lot of questions—primarily focusing on how Boseman died. Honesty and age-appropriate answers will satisfy most children until they are ready to further the conversation. Greater understanding prompts new questions. If your child has lost an important person in their life, be aware that this new and very public death can reawaken previous grief responses. Memorials and commemorations, either spontaneous or planned, are an essential part of grieving. Memorialization has many benefits. Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter posts in the days after Boseman’s death revealed how action figure collections took on more importance with photos of miniature bereavement rituals honoring Black Panther by his fellow Avengers. You can also discuss with your children the symbolic meaning Black Panther had in their life and also separate and connect them with the real-life person who portrayed the character.

Dr. Marylin Mendoza: What teachable moments, or life lessons, are there for children and adolescents?

Dr. Donna Gaffney: Although grief is a natural human response to the death of someone in our lives, most children do not understand this most human experience. Attig (2004) points out that grief is a constellation of emotions, behaviors, a state of deprivation and adjustment, and that it is much more than the sum of its parts. The literature tells us children who learned about grief from adults could better define the emotions of grief, overcome their anxiety when talking about it and share their own personal experiences. The death of Chadwick Boseman is a powerful teachable moment that will help children and adolescents understand the nature of grieving (Stylianou, 2018).

Chadwick Boseman’s death is situated in the sociopolitical intersection of a pandemic, economic and racial injustice, and violence. This climate has contributed to the way children and their families reacted to his death, especially children of color. The deadly pandemic that has claimed the lives of more people of color in this country has prompted some children to ask if Boseman died from COVID-19. Other young people wanted to know if Boseman was shot or harmed by police excessive force. Still others raised questions about the sudden knowledge of his death. As challenging as it is to comprehend Boseman’s death and the difficult circumstances facing our country, these conversations are much needed and can offer children comfort, safety and support. 

Dr. Jill Harrington: The teachable moment is a difficult but unavoidable universal reality — for parents to educate their children about death, loss, and grief. It also helps parents to educate kids about mythology-fiction — one of the benefits for parents is a platform in which they can educate children about the impact and nature of stories in our lives, the impact of their meaning/symbolism, but also the separation between reality and fantasy. Like us, actors who play these characters are mortal, but iconic mythical characters, such as David & Goliath, Thor, Thanos (Thanatos), and in our generation, Black Panther – their stories can live through the ages because of the human stories these myths and their characters represent. Chadwick Boseman helped to bring to life the beauty, power, and symbolism of the Black Panther.

Ways to Help Kids Cope and Tips for Families:

  • Adults/caregivers can find ways to help children feel connected to the person who died by watching movies involving that superhero, creating a box of special mementos (e.g., movie tickets, figurines, etc.), or even just talking about what made that superhero (and the actor who played the superhero) so special.
  • Given that most superheroes exemplify the ability to transform their own grief into something meaningful, it can help children to think about the ways in which they themselves can carry on the legacy of that superhero. For example, they may have ideas about how they can incorporate some of the superhero’s special traits/behaviors into their own lives.
  • Do use the words "death" and "died." Only using neutral words (euphemisms) such as “loss” and “passing” can be too vague and ambiguous, especially for children. 
  • If you notice something that may be upsetting to a child or teen, don't be afraid to begin a conversation at that moment.
  • With the recent death of Chadwick Boseman, if you think your child may be affected, set an example. Take time to watch Boseman’s films together with your children – to honor their life and legacy. Validate their feelings and process the loss together.
  • Children take their cues from others. Acknowledging how Boseman’s death affects you can be reassuring to your child.
  • If your child seems to be struggling with Chadwick Boseman’s death more than you anticipated, or if you have any concerns, or if there has been a previous death in the family or community, you may want to get some guidance from a primary care provider or visit The National Alliance for Grieving Children to find a location for family support near you at https://childrengrieve.org/find-support.

Dr. Jill Harrington is a clinical social worker, specializing in the intersection of grief, loss, and trauma as well as an adjunct assistant professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, part-time lecturer at Rutgers University School of Social Work and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice. Dr. Julie Kaplow is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology who serves as the Founder and Executive Director of The Trauma and Grief Center at The Hackett Center for Mental Health in Houston, Texas. Dr. Donna Gaffney is a nurse-psychotherapist who has long addressed grief and trauma in children’s lives — she worked with communities and schools after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and is formerly on the faculty of Columbia University, New York.

References

Attig, T. (2004). Meanings of death seen through the lens of grieving. Death Studies, 28, 341–360. 

Feige, K. (Producer), & Coogler, R. (Director). Black Panther [Motion Picture]. (2018). United States: Marvel Studios.

Stylianou, P., & Zembylas, M. (2018). Dealing with the concepts of “grief” and “grieving” in the classroom: Children’s perceptions, emotions, and behavior. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 77(3), 240-266.